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Foreign Secretary's speech at Lady Shri Ram College for Women on: "Strategy Roundtable on women in public service in South Asia: Educating for Public Leadership"

March 31, 2014


Lady Shri Ram College for Women : March 31, 2014

It is a pleasure to be here with all of you today at this Roundtable on Women in Public Service in South Asia.

I am particularly glad that it focuses on bringing women together from South Asia, that part of the world which is of closest and immediate consequence to India, in all the areas of our interaction.

In this series of dialogues, we are looking at how women’s leadership can alter the vision of security for women across Asia and provide for their full and equal citizenship.

I am particularly glad that we have present here today, a hundred aspiring young women leaders from LSR and mid-career professionals from the region.

I have been asked to speak to you for about 15 minutes today on ‘The Public and the Private: The Professional Trajectory and Personal Journey’ and to focus on :

i) What changes have been achieved in the social, economic and political security of women in South Asia and what remains to be done?

ii) Suggestions for achieving full and equal citizenship for women.

I spent a good part of yesterday trying to figure out how to cover all these elements, each of them quite different, yet interconnected. I must admit it is quite a challenge, but let me give it a shot.

All of us know of course of the women political leaders that South Asia has produced, remarkable women of great strength and fortitude, who have shaped their countries destinies and still do so. Today, however, I wanted to focus on a civil servant from my own service.

I thought I would start by telling you about a remarkable woman who you may or may not already know of and whose story reflects, to some degree, what many women face even today, in the course of their professional trajectories, though hopefully, to nowhere the same extent. This is about Chonira Belliappa Muthamma, the first woman to have joined the Indian Foreign Service, in 1949, barely two years after Independence.

Born in a modest home in Coorg in 1924, Muthamma lost her father, a Forest Officer, when she was just nine. Her mother made it a priority to educate her four children. She graduated from Chennai’s Women’s Christian College with a triple gold medal and completed post graduation in English Literature from Presidency College with a distinction. In 1949, Muthamma became the first woman in post-Independent India to appear for the Civil Services Examination, which she topped to enter the Indian Foreign Service in 1949.

Ms. C.B. Muthuamma served in various Indian Embassies in various capacities. In 1970, she was posted as India’s Ambassador to Hungary, the first woman from within the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) to be appointed Ambassador. Later, she served as India’s High Commissioner to Accra and her last posting was as Indian Ambassador to The Hague.

Muthamma is especially remembered for her successful crusade for equality for women in the all male Indian Civil Services of her time. Her struggles started with the UPSC Board interview where the Board members tried to persuade her to change her first option for the IFS. In the end, she was given abysmally low marks, in spite of which she topped the Foreign Service list. Thereafter, several Ambassadors refused to accept her in their Missions, citing various reasons as to why it was inappropriate to send a woman to the station. Finally, she was accepted in the Indian Embassy in Paris. There she found that it was not only Indian diplomats who had problems with a lady colleague, but also her peers in other Embassies who were equally ill at ease in dealing with a woman.

The tipping point was reached when she was overlooked for promotion to Grade I, the senior most level of Secretary to Government of India, of the IFS. She petitioned the Supreme Court in the matter that both the Appointments Committee of Cabinet (ACC) and MEA were prejudiced against women as a group. She further challenged Rule 8(2) of IFS(Conduct & Discipline) Rules, 1961 which stated that a woman member of the service shall obtain permission in writing of the Government before marriage and that the woman member may be required to resign any time after marriage if the Government is satisfied that her family and domestic commitments will hamper her duties as a member of the service, and Rule 18(4) of IFS( RCSP) Rules, 1961 which noted that no married woman shall be entitled as of right to be appointed to the service. The Supreme Court Bench headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer noted that these Rules were in defiance of Article 14 & 16 of the Indian Constitution. The Court impressed upon the Government of India "the need to overhaul all service rules to remove the stain of sex discrimination, without waiting for ad-hoc inspiration from writ petitions or gender charity.” Ms. Muthamma was indeed promoted to Grade I in July 1980. The Apex Court then ruled that justice has been done. The landmark judgment ended with a statement "we dismiss the petition but not the problem”.

I wanted to dwell at some length on Ms. Muthamma and what she did for the women who followed her in the Indian Foreign Service by breaching the bastions of prejudice and knocking down the institutional barriers that prevented women from breaking through the glass ceiling and reaching the full extent of their potential, for I believe that her story touches on everything we are talking about today – the professional trajectory, the personal journey, and achieving full and equal citizenship for women.

Today, there are 142 women in the Service, about 19% of the total; 16 of them Ambassadors, 4 Consul Generals and 11 Head of Divisions at Headquarters; 6 of them Grade I, of the rank of Secretary to the Government of India. I would like to add that of the 4 Secretaries we have at Headquarters in the Ministry of External Affairs, two are women. It would also be of interest to you that they are both from LSR and also perhaps, that they are both named Sujatha/Sujata!

Thank you, LSR.

I remember Ms. Muthamma as being a formidable personality and quite intimidating. Those were precisely the qualities needed to fight the battles she fought all through her life and they would have left their mark on her.

It was about getting a foot in the door not just once, but repeatedly, right up till the very end of her career.

We have travelled a very long way since then, but still not far enough and I will come to that.

At the present point of time, I like to think that we have the institutional framework to breach most if not any bastion that we chose to. Whether we do or do not is a different matter. I also believe that we have reached a critical mass. There are good numbers of us and we have come to the point where we are, by and large, judged on our individual merit, on how good we are at our work.

Barring of course, the odd running into the foolish and clearly difficult male boss who believes that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and to be seen, not heard and tries his best to make life difficult for you.

If you have the bad luck to run into such a character, then it can be tough, but in my personal experience, such instances are rare and will hopefully get rarer still.

But having said that, let me also say that for each of us who are in the privileged position of being able to make our own decisions, there are many who are not and nowhere near getting a foot in the door.

I have in mind here, the women and girls, especially in the rural areas, who despite all the schemes successive governments in India have put into place, have yet to have access to education and to equal rights, let alone a chance to break through the glass ceiling.

And here, I believe that we have a monumental challenge ahead of us in achieving economic and social security for women; and further that you cannot achieve this without achieving economic and social security for men as well. It has to be for society as a whole, if women are to be empowered. In the process of empowering the girl child you have to empower her parents – her mother and her father. The men are an essential part of the equation, in changing mindsets, in changing attitudes, without which there can be no change. Within this matrix, we know that women are the main agents of change and should be given priority and everything else they need to bring about change. But you have to change the matrix as well the frameworks in which she operates.

What needs to be done?

Everything that is needed to lift our poor above the poverty level. Access to clean water, to food, to sanitation and to roads. Above all, for women, access to sanitation, recognizing the fundamental importance of a closed toilet.

It often strikes me how different our worlds are – the world of our women who are outside the safety nets that we, the women here today, have in our well off worlds, and how their problems are so different from ours.

This was one of the difficulties I had in preparing for this dialogue today – of straddling these two worlds that are so different from each other in so many essential respects.

Are we doing enough for them? As women who have broken out of our traditional destinies, what can we do to help them break out of theirs? There are no easy answers.

Let me just leave that thought with you. I am sure you will deal with it in subsequent sessions.

Finally, before I end, I wanted to share my thoughts with you on getting ahead in the workplace. Every working woman has her own story to tell. It is never quite the same. But there are certain lessons I have learnt and I would like to share them with you for what it’s worth.

i) First and foremost: Be good at what you do: Man or woman, you will be judged on your individual worth;

ii) Don’t carry a chip on your shoulder; it’s counterproductive;

iii) One of the most important sources of strength is that of having good support systems, especially for working mothers.

iv) The importance of OGNs or Old Girl Networks; I am glad to say that these are up and running pretty much everywhere now and are good counterparts to the OBNs or Old Boy Networks. I have found them to be very useful at various stages of my career.

iv) There will be difficult choices to be made; times when you need to give primacy to your family/personal life or when you have decided to put your career on hold. Have faith that with courage and persistence, it will work out in the end;

v) There will be ups and there will be downs. You will learn more from the downs than the ups, provided you determine to survive them.

I would like to conclude by stating that each of us here has been given a chance that our mothers perhaps did not have. Take it with both hands and never let that fire burn out, the fire to succeed. You can make it.

Thank you.


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